Stewed Rabbit: 1861

Last week I began to question if I was still young.

Now, I’m not one of these people who fears getting old at all. Nothing makes me switch channels faster than when adverts come on showing beautiful women slathering greasy creams onto their faces while some voice over purrs that the cream contains acid and will make them look so young midwives will be wiping their wrinkle free bums and bundling them up in blankets before they can blink. Incidentally, why was acid a substance my chemistry teacher wouldn’t let us handle without twenty pairs of goggles and a hazmat suit, but as soon as you turn 50 is OK to smear on your eyelids?

First of all, I found a grey hair. No big deal; I work with kids and they’ll keep me young, I thought, and went to work.

Year 7 were working on developing their extended answers to essay questions. Who knew: sometimes history can be boring! As practice, I’d asked them to write a paragraph about their favorite subject at school or, if they didn’t have one (as so many of them loudly shouted), their favorite family member. It was all going really well until one of the little delights put their hand up to ask a question.

“Miss, is this alright: History is my favorite subject at school -“

“Certainly the best possible start, Sophie.”

“There are lots of reasons for this, mainly it’s because the topics we’re looking at are interesting, such as Battle of Hastings.”

Things were looking good. I willed my head of department to walk through the door.

“However, there are other reasons I enjoy it too, such as my teacher…”

As my ego drowned out the sound of the class collectively rolling their eyes, I imagined the headteacher joining my head of department in the doorway and giving me a thumbs up. Sophie was saying something else now, so I re-tuned in.

“…so therefore the reason I like her is she’s a bit like my nan, who I would say is also my favorite family member.”

“Er, what was that last bit?”

Even after we’d established that Sophie was just comparing my personality rather than my appearance to that of a 70 year old, I found it hard to shake the idea that maybe my youth (in a sort of true sense of the word) was coming to an end. Later, whilst I researched care homes and browsed Boots for hair dye, I thought about what I’d achieved in my 27 years and wondered: was it it enough?

All this background is just an incredibly long winded way to introduce Isabella Beeton, a woman who crammed so much into 28 years of life that she’s often mis-imagined as an elderly spinster, rather than a young woman under 30 (spot the difference now, Sophie?)

Born in 1836, Isabella Beeton is still an absolute stronghold of English kitchens throughout the land. Most people have heard of her Book of Household Management which was published in 1861, but what they might not be aware of is that the collection of recipes and household advice was actually published serially in a magazine owned by her husband before it was turned into a book. Not specifically a cookbook, but an instructional guide for the flourishing middle classes to help housewives with the everyday problems they might encounter as they ran their households. Her writing style was brisk and clipped which made her seem like a repressed middle aged woman, but did lend an air of authority and gained her many fans. Unfortunately, Mrs Beeton died at the age of just 28 from complications surrounding the birth of her fourth child. Her husband later sold the magazine they had worked on together and to keep a good income rolling in, the men who bought it continued to publish recipes under her name and in her writing style to give the impression she was still alive, such was her popularity and success.

Originally, Mrs Beeton didn’t focus on recipes but on translating work, having been educated in England and Germany. In fact, she had been given quite an extensive education and training and by 19 was proficient in multiple languages, piano, dressmaking and had even trained in pastry making at a German finishing school. All this worldly experience would later be used in her book; in between the recipes that made Mrs Beeton famous there are chapters on fashion, how to hire servants and how to raise children to be polite and respectful.

As well as being a celebrated cook, Mrs Beeton appears to have been a massive occultist too

Whilst flicking through the book I was delighted to learn that the correct term of address for me was Mistress of the Household and that “as with the commander of an army, or the the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.” I read on, bristling with importance. “She [is] who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue…” Finally, some recognition!

To help me command my household without going bankrupt, Mrs Beeton also included a breakdown of how much to pay each type of servant, from the lowliest maid and “occasional girl” (£150 – £200 a year) to an entourage of a cook, a couple of housemaids, a nursemaid and a manservant (about £1000 a year). My husband enquired hopefully whether we could get an “occasional girl” of our own. I told him that since it was my job to save him from vice we could not, but that I’d look into getting us a manservant.

Stewed Rabbit is a recipe that sits in chapter 18 of Household Management in-between a chapter about the natural habitat and behaviour of birds and some “General Observations on Game”. Having never cooked rabbit before I was a bit alarmed when the butcher whacked a carcass down on the counter rather than some pre-cut packaged meat, but I think I hid it well and only squeaked a little bit. Victorian cooks were used to seeing meat in its original state and I counted myself lucky that at least I hadn’t had to behead, skin and gut it.

Although the stewed rabbit part of the recipe was straightforward, there were many sneaky additions that weren’t immediately clear would need lots of prep. For example, when going through the ingredient list I saw that I’d need to add ‘a few forcemeat balls’ and something called ‘mushroom ketchup’. Knowing that cooks throughout history hated waste of any kind, I was suddenly very wary of what the forcemeat balls might be.

Turns out they’re sort of like stuffing, but smaller and smoother in texture. Mrs Beetons says that there should be no one flavour that overpowers them and they should melt in the mouth and not be dry, nor heavy. This made me rather question the bloody point of them, but I obliged and made 15. Mrs Beeton also suggested using the liver of the rabbit but said I could pick ham if the liver was not available. Though a queasy glance at the pile of bones, skin and meat told me the liver was very much available, guess which one I picked.

I’ve helpfully distorted the size of these by putting them into a novelty skillet, which makes them look massive. In reality they’re about the size of walnuts

The mushroom ketchup was something I had to adapt, as Mrs Beeton’s recipe takes about a week to make properly and I only had an afternoon. It involved salting a lot of mushrooms and leaving them for 3 days to draw the water out (or 15 minutes over a low heat with a lot of mashing if you have no time), and then boiling them for hours until all the neighbours had evacuated their houses to escape the stench. With the street empty, the mushroom/water potion was strained through a sieve and bottled.

My sneaky additions prepared, I set about making the stew. First I cut off the liver and kidneys from the rabbit, spraying blood everywhere as my knife wasn’t sharp and in my blunt carvings I accidentally tipped the blood drenched dish the rabbit had been sitting in upside down. Then I placed the joints into a large pan to which I added 2 chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel. I covered with water and let it cook for half an hour while I scrubbed myself and the kitchen clean a la serial killer style.

The recipe very unhelpfully told me that the rabbit stew would take ‘rather more than 1/2 an hour’ to cook. Nothing else, cheers Mrs B. I went back after half an hour and saw that the meat appeared cooked, but since 1/2 an hour didn’t feel like very long at all I left it a further 1/2 hour, hoping to emulate some of the slow cooking style of modern rabbit stew recipes. I had also by now had a chance to look at some modern day recipes and was dismayed to see the addition of wine, butter, olive oil, garlic and all other sorts of things that would make this dish a lot more appetising. The thriftiness World War One enforced on the British public was still decades away from this recipe, but boy was Mrs Beeton practicing hard for it. It was now that I discovered decadence and frivolity were not traits that Isabella Beeton was known for; she espoused frugality and moderation (sometimes bordering on what we might call minimalism today) in everything she did, even when writing meals for people who could afford servants.

After some further boiling from the rabbit, and some silent seething resentment from me, I drained some of the water off and added the forcemeat balls. To make a gravy, Mrs Beeton advised added flour and butter and then a ladle of the mushroom ketchup. I boiled it all together and then it was done.

Honestly, I did nearly give up on this. There was a moment while I was stirring that I looked at the grey slush before me and then caught sight of the BBC recipe which was open on my phone brazenly looking so much better and just thought ‘sod it’. But I rallied, in true Beeton style, and admonished myself for setting such a negative example to my impressionable child and imaginary servants. I plated up, ignored the fact that even though I’m pretty imaginative I couldn’t think of a way it could look more unappetising, and ate.

Charles Darwin, the great evolutionary scientist of the Victorians themselves has shown that evolution takes a long time, longer than 150 or so years anyway, to make significant change to a species. Therefore, the Victorians must have had tastebuds. I can only imagine, then, that they must also have had a deep seated self loathing. The rabbit was bland and chewy, thanks to the fact the recipe didn’t do anything to it other than boil it in water for only half an hour. The sauce might have been thick, but like the rabbit, lacked any sort of meaningful flavour apart from a hint of cloves which was just a bit unpleasant with nothing to offset it. There was an earthiness from the mushroom ketchup (which incidentally was actually quite useful in other dishes that needed something salty) but it was a subtle flavour against the already bland backdrop, and didn’t really enhance anything. Immediately, therefore, it became obvious what the forcemeat balls were for: taste. Unfortunately, the taste was not unlike lemon scented sink cleaner with an added bitter aftertaste thanks to the mace. Of my tiny portion, I ate two forkfuls; it was worse than Lord Woolton’s Pie.

Even with a side plate size serving I managed to scratch my throat on a tiny fragment of bone

I felt slightly betrayed by Mrs B. I mean, it may have been down to my cooking ability but as you’ll see, the instructions are not exactly hard to follow so if I went wrong I’m not sure where it was. People who still want to try rabbit stew and don’t hate themselves would be far better off making the one from the BBC recipe instead of this. I’m not done with Household Management yet, but we’re definitely taking some time away from each other for a bit following this dish. On the plus side though it has taught me that I if I do ever commit a murder, no forensic lab will ever be able to prove it happened in my kitchen.

At the start of this Mrs Beeton may have compared me to a commander of an army, but it was an army that had suffered a heavy defeat and was now limply retreating to the direction of the nearest kebab shop. My husband, guinea pig that he has become, had been very excited to try stewed rabbit. As he told me he was heading home I texted him back: “getting a takeaway, what do you want?”

E x

Stewed Rabbit

1 rabbit
2 large onions
6 cloves
Lemon peel of 1 lemon
Forcemeat balls
Table spoon of butter
2 or 3 tablespoons of plain flour
Mushroom ketchup

  1. Put the rabbit, cut into joints, into a large pan with the chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel.
  2. Cover with water and boil for 1 hour or so.
  3. After the meat is cooked, thicken the sauce with flour and butter – take out two ladles of water from the pan and put in a bowl. To this, add the flour and butter and whisk together until thick. Then tip this back into the main pan and stir until fully mixed in.
  4. Add a ladle of mushroom ketchup, or more or less depending on taste, and stir.
  5. Add the forcemeat balls and bring to a boil.

Forcemeat Balls

3 slices of ham
180g of breadcrumbs
1 large egg
10g of beef suet
rind of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon of finely chopped basil, sage, mint and thyme
1/2 teaspoon of ground mace

  1. Chop the ham into as small pieces as you can. Add the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon.
  2. Add the breadcrumbs, beef suet, herbs and mace. Stir until well combined.
  3. Beat an egg and once it’s well beaten add it to the mix to combine. It should now be the consistency of sausage meat. If too dry, add water. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs.
  4. Roll out balls the size of a small walnut and place on a baking tray.
  5. Bake for 25 minutes at 160 degrees.

Mushroom Ketchup

1 pack of portobello mushroom
120g salt
brandy

  1. Place the mushrooms in a pan and cover with salt. Mash the mushrooms and salt together over a gentle heat.
  2. Once mashed, cover the mushrooms in 1.5 litres of water and bring to the boil. Let them cook for 3 hours, by which time the water should have reduced by half.
  3. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a jug so that only the liquid remains.
  4. Add a teaspoon of brandy and store in the fridge, covered, for 3 days.

Spaghetti a la Campbell: 1916

When my daughter was born a very good friend gave me the best ‘new mother’ advice I’ve ever received: lower your standards. If things are still too hard to manage, lower them again.

As I lunged towards my daughter who was smearing peanut butter into our velvet sofa (the purchase of which remains one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done) I thought of these words. As I slammed my foot down on top of one of her lego blocks and fell to the floor screeching a stream of incoherent swear words, I heard my friend’s voice repeat them. And as I gazed from my vantage point to under the stupid sofa at the litter of tissues, toys and gently festering bits of forgotten food while my daughter prepared to jump onto my head, I heard my friend shout, “too low! TOO LOW!”

Clearly, our household management was lacking. So today while my husband was still working and I had put the wild child to bed I decided to learn how to look after our home better, beginning in the kitchen.

Once in the kitchen, I had no idea where to actually start but fortunately in 1916 the American soup company Campbell’s released a promotional recipe book called Helps for the Hostess. This was aimed at families (well, let’s be honest – women) to help them raise their standards and create harmony throughout the home, mostly through the medium of soup. With hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that for Campbell’s the soup came first and the family harmony was more of a bonus.

Now, I didn’t really think soup was going to fill the crack in our kitchen wall, or solve the damp problem under the stairs, but the Campbell’s book was so overflowing with that very American brand of brisk optimism that I began to hope it could.

“A refined, well appointed home gives a recognized social standing which money alone will not achieve, among people who are worth while”, it declared right from the start. My God, I wanted to be worth while already. The book went on to assure me that with a few soupy additions to my cooking, I, a sweet and simple young wife, could now “charmingly welcome” my husband home after a hard day’s work with a “little dinner…the very fact that [I would have] prepared the meal and served it to him [would] add to the intimacy” of our 21st century relationship.

After I’d changed out of my work trousers into my best gingham frock, I set about researching the background to this gem. In 1916 the Americans had yet to join World War One, and so their cooking instructions lacked some of the frugality found in some British cookbooks of the same time period. The trouble for Campbell’s soup, however, was that they were struggling to fit into what the average American needed in their day to day life. Plain canned tomato soup, as convenient and relatively inexpensive as it was, just wasn’t speaking to the public on any sort of consumer level.

To shift more tins, Campbell’s changed their advertising to create the iconic red and white striped background and overlaid images of enticing food on top of this. Still, nothing. Frustrated, they began to target housewives who cooked soup from scratch, arguing that buying their soup would save them time and work. But, the equally frustrated housewives argued back, peeling and boiling vegetables for soup was a welcome break in the afternoon from surreptitiously swigging whiskey and sobbing into a pillow.

Then, Campbell’s had its breakthrough: what could any sane woman like more than impossibly large pig faced babies extolling the virtues of the soup with peppy slogans? Slogans that tapped into women’s insecurities about how well they were looking after their families. Slogans that implied the only way to be a good mother and wife was to fuel their families with soup. Slogans that gently suggested that wives would bring shame and humiliation on their husbands if they brought dinner guests home without much warning and there wasn’t enough store cupboard food to feed said guest.

The combination of disturbing pig kids spouting annoying rhymes about how the soup would make them strong and clever began to work on the women and business began to grow. As sales boomed, executives worried that there might be a limit to how much soup one household might reasonably need, so created a series of recipes that would encourage housewives to use more cans of the stuff in ingenious ways whilst simultaneously destroying what might otherwise be a decent meal.

You’ve eaten enough soup, boy

Spaghetti a la Campbell is actually one of the more appealing suggestions in Helps for the Hostess. Wanting this meal to actually bring me closer to my husband rather than be the grounds on which he successfully filed for divorce, I had decided to skip over offerings such as ‘Tomato Aspic with Cucumber Filling’ and ‘Stuffed Eggs in Aspic’ and, something called ‘Rum Tum Ditty’ which as far as I could tell was just tomato soup with a whole block of cheese sinking miserably in the centre of it.

In what appeared to be a genuine attempt to make life easier for housewives, the recipe itself was really straightforward. As I was cooking it I could feel myself getting more charming and competent around the house. I did a tinkly laugh as I thought of how my husband might like it if I warmed his non-existent slippers by the fire for later, and how I would regale him with delightful tales of our delicate and naive daughter who had spent the day tenderly playing with her dolls and not at all jumping in puddles and throwing sand at pigeons in the park.

If you wanted you could also use Campbell’s tomato soup as an emergency self tan

“I’ve made pasta”, I told him when he got home. “It’s got tomato soup in it.”

“Oh. Don’t we have anything else?” was the response. Hardly the warm and grateful attitude I had been expecting.

“No we don’t. You could have had aspic. You still can.”

Despite the rocky start, it wasn’t a bad weekday meal. Sure, the tomato soup made it a bit sickly sweet for modern day standards, and the cold raw pepper garnish was a bit odd, but the smoked ham added a nice subtle flavour to what was essentially a basic tomato sauce. In fact, it was so inoffensive that I forgot I was eating something experimental and my husband had seconds. Housewives of America must have thought it was alright too, because the company continued to go from strength to strength throughout the first half of the 20th century eventually buying out other American brands and incorporating them into the Campbell’s family. 1916 was still too early to be considered the era of convenience food, but with their tinned soup and quick family friendly recipes, Campbell’s was definitely paving the way by creating new and innovative shortcuts.

After eating we were too tired to clean the kitchen up. The silent mess under the sofa was still quietly rotting away and the lego bricks were still strewn with dangerous abandon across the carpet. We lowered our standards once more.

E x

Spaghetti a la Campbell

1 can of condensed Campbell’s tomato soup
2 onions
2 peppers
20 button mushrooms
280g of spaghetti
5 slices of smoked ham
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 cloves of garlic
parmesan

  1. Boil the spaghetti in a pan of salted water with 2 cloves of garlic.
  2. Chop the onions and fry them in olive oil. Add sliced up pepper and mushrooms, leaving some of both raw to the side to garnish later, and cook until soft.
  3. Slice the ham into strips and add to the onions and peppers. Fry for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Add a can of Campbell’s tomato soup to the ham and veg mix and stir together.
  5. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and add to the pan of ham and veg and add a 1/2 teaspoon of thyme. Stir thoroughly.
  6. Lay on a plate and add the left over raw sliced pepper and mushrooms and serve with Parmesan.

Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

When I was 6 or 7 we did an experiment at school mixing water and flour together and using the glue created to stick bits of lovingly beglittered tat to other bits of beglittered tat to take home as a ‘gift’ for our parents. My mum kept all our artwork stuck to the kitchen door but now that I think of it I’m not sure I remember my handmade glue creation making the cut, which seems really unfair when you consider that a Father Christmas made by my sister out of a toilet roll tube and some glued on cotton wool enjoyed pride of place on our tree every bloody year. It wasn’t even homemade glue she used either.

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with but one that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout this week’s experiment, for reasons that I imagine are already apparent.

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. On the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and lack of meat and unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not as much talk of bread as you might expect, given that it’s a universal foodstuff. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were fully aware that there was an original plot they were trying to remain faithful to whilst also creating TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the merits and nuances of bread probably weren’t considered as sexy or compelling as having yet another scene where Uhtred had to show off his muscles and improbably conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.

To really understand why there was no clear word for bread in Anglo-Saxon England you have to understand the special kind of jiggery pokery that is the evolution of the English language. I don’t. Luckily, Dr Irina Yanushkevich seems to so I’ve taken a lot of my info and processes this week from her paper ‘The Domain of Bread in Anglo-Saxon Culture’.

To cut a long story short(ish) (and hide the fact that I don’t really understand it all), the Anglo-Saxons had many words relating to different types of bread, or bread like substances, or specific ingredients used to make bread, or the tools needed to prepare bread, or the physical action of making the bread, or the times of year which you could start making bread, or the types of people who might make bread, or the sacrificial role of the bread in religious ceremonies, or how much someone wants to eat the bread or how they will pay for the bread.

Truly, if I were an Anglo-Saxon baker I’d be getting restraining orders against most of the village, so obsessed people appeared to be with bread. If I learned anything from this experiment it’s that when compared to the Anglo-Saxons, even the nation’s own self aggrandising bread whisperer Paul Hollywood pales into insignificance in terms of preoccupation with the stuff.

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people, with fine white wheat being used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley, (both very common bread varieties for the Anglo-Saxons), so breads made out of it cost much more, hence why in the later middle ages wheat became known as a cash crop.

According to Dr. Yanushkevich, the word bread may derive from the Gothic word broe, which was related to brewing or fermenting, as baking and brewing went hand in hand at this time. The Anglo-Saxons possibly used broe to describe bread leavened with barm from fermenting beer and the word hlāf to describe bread that was unleavened. So far, so simple. The trouble is that hlāf could also be used to mean ‘food’ in general and, later, breads that were only used in religious contexts.

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast or even serve as plates, known as trenchers, once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it (yeah, yeah, I know it’s not good history to apply modern systems to different eras but whatever.)

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor passed the Bread Purity Law after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that was Definitely Not Proper Bread as he and his entourage travelled to London. In the Bread Purity Law he made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just “fine flour, water, barm and salt” bread. Bad news for artisan food markets everywhere.

Unfortunately the Hovis baker’s boy had to be executed after yet again breaching the terms of the Bread Law
Image credit: Dmitry Makeev

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm, which was the froth on top of fermenting beer and which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent. What I made was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal, rather than to be shown off to your rich guests as the world’s most underwhelming showstopper. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days and placate an upset child with a dab of honey on it.

In the same way we wouldn’t write a recipe on how to boil a pan of water, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered this type of bread to be so simple and ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it either. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

First, I mixed 160g of as unadulterated white wheat flour as I could find with a pinch of salt before adding 5 or 6 tablespoons of water and stirring until it was the consistency of a standard bread dough. Now, it’s unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons making this basic type of bread would have used wheat flour; more likely they’d have used a barley or rye mixture but not only did Sainsbury’s flour aisle not stretch to those good honest grains (too much shelf space taken up failing to flog the tomato and pesto bread mix, apparently) but I also felt that in a recipe as sparse as this one, I might as well treat myself to a better quality of flour.

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, with pans placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. Resisting the urge to use the dough to fix our faulty cupboard door handle back on, I scraped two ladle’s worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a couple of minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning, which I was sure would only add to the complexity of flavours in this recipe, so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another couple of minutes. Then they were done.

Not a cartoon filter, just a combination of plate patina, odd lighting and blinding photographic talent

These were genuinely decent. I would actually rather make these again than buy pitta bread, they were that easy and cheap to make. I’m not going to talk about the flavour because it was a plain white piece of bread and everyone already knows what that tastes like (and if you don’t then you need to re-examine how you’re living your life.) Accompaniment wise, though, I could see this working with anything; my husband had managed to whack a great slab of cheddar on top of his with alarming speed while I opted for a far more dignified scraping of chocolate spread. Both worked well. What I would say is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was really quite chewy and hard work. To a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much, but modern day standards have thankfully improved.

I might not be a great Anglo-Saxon warrior or a Viking warlord, and yes, I’ve written the word bread so many times that it doesn’t actually look right or mean anything to me anymore, but spending an hour making this has made me feel a little bit closer to the history which inspired The Last Kingdom, and to Uhtred’s impossible hair, which is a huge benefit however you look at it.

E x

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour, water

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a dough.

2. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan and place a little oil or butter to melt on it.

3. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of dough onto pan (or however much you want depending on how big you want your bread.) Make sure it doesn’t come up too much by flattening and spreading it with the back of a spoon.

4. Cook for 5 minutes before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 5 minutes. If dough is still pale and soft then return to pan and cook for longer.

Cabinet Pudding: 1895

If you’ve bumped into any good history teachers today they may have bored you with the information that Queen Victoria died on this day 1901. As any BBC docudrama will tell you: she reigned from 1837, becoming queen at the age of just 18, until her death 64 years later which at the time made her the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the time of her death it was said that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”. Which all sounds very impressive if you imagine David Starkey animatedly frothing about it with something by Elgar playing in the background, but doesn’t really mean anything on its own; are we supposed to praise her for being fortunate enough to afford decent medical care and comfort to aid her long reign when at the same time approximately 25% of the population in lived in poverty? Or is it that if you’re the sort of person who believes the positives of the empire outweigh the negatives, we should laud her for personally hitching up her skirts and striding across India to plant the flag and introduce the ever so grateful natives to civilisation because apparently those 1000 year old languages and temples don’t count?

That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her status as Golden Girl of the Royal Family. She patronised many new inventions and supported rapid industrialisation which made Britain wealthy beyond measure. Likewise, her decision to open Buckingham Palace up for public events whilst still being used as a family home in an attempt to connect with her people (as long as they weren’t too smelly and dirty), was nothing short of revolutionary and her modifications are still used today to help bring the nation together. She may have been known for being a bit dour and hard to amuse in public, but her wit and warm nature (spoken of by those who knew her well) helped form strong international links with countries in Europe, even through times of great political uncertainty. It’s telling that she appears to have had some kind of influence in creating an uneasy peace between her two grandsons Wilhelm II of Germany and George V, as Wilhelm lamented after the outbreak of WW1 that if she’d still been alive she would never have allowed George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (also one of her relations through marriage) to form an alliance which would help lead to war. He did keep quiet about what she might have thought about Germany’s own alliance system and its contribution to the war, though.

It’s therefore a bit frustrating when you Google Queen Vic and, other than a dodgy pub in London, the first things that come up are clinical facts dressed up as personal hard-won achievements. With this in mind, then, I present to you Cabinet Pudding – a dish I can find no account of Queen Victoria particularly enjoying, nor one that takes its name from her. But it happened to be created in her era and so by Google standards that’s close enough.

Also known as Chancellor’s Pudding, Cabinet Pudding is something that some people might have heard of but aren’t quite sure what it is. This recipe is from Mary Beale’s Wholesome Cookery which was published in 1895 and which I found in this book. Apparently it was on the menu along with another Victorian fave, Charlotte Russe, at a dinner at Erddig in December 1914. By all accounts the whole evening was a delight, “notwithstanding poor Philip’s gout”, as one guest wrote, but I heard he was putting it on for attention.

It quickly became apparent that it was lucky I had the day off. Now I understood why cooks in period dramas always seemed so angry and fraught – I swear at one point I was meant to be simultaneously straining custard whilst stirring something else, chopping fruit, juggling rolling pins and fending off the advances of the footman*.

My first job was to butter an oven proof bowl and “ornament the bottom and sides with pieces of preserved fruit”. That was it. Let me tell you: I’m still angry at how such a monumentally difficult task was disguised as being so simple in one short sentence. I don’t know what kind of butter they must have been using 100 years ago but I’m certain Pritt Stick would be interested in the recipe.

I picked glace cherries, sultanas, tinned apricots and tinned peaches as my fruits because thanks to the invention of canning in 1810, they were all used in the Victorian era and I thought would work well together.

Since starting this blog it’s become a theme that my expectations don’t match reality: I had imagined the inside of the bowl becoming a stained glass window of jewels glistening with ruby and amber hues. In actuality, every piece of the damn fruit peeled itself from the side and slumped to the bottom in a heap of brown.

This was about the time I began to question whether superglue would really cause that much internal damage

Once I’d built the fruit back up to about 1/3 of the way of the bowl and decided to quit while I was ahead, I found I had to add some stale slices of cake and alternate with crushed ratafia biscuits. If the fruit shenanigans hadn’t immediately proven it for me, it was now apparent that Mary Beale was a woman who had lost her grip on reality if she thought ordinary people were letting their cakes sit around long enough for them to get stale. I made a basic sponge cake in 15 minutes (humble brag, don’t care) and left it in the oven for a bit longer to dry out so it would mimic the dryness of these imaginary uneaten treats Mary wrote about. Having no idea how to throw together a ratafia biscuit I consulted the Victorian powerhouse that was Mrs Beeton.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton talks about these being small, round almond biscuits but what’s more important is that she also says cooks should just as well buy these from a good shop as make them themselves. Guilt free, I bought a packet of the first Amaretti biscuits I could find.

I made layers in the bowl of alternating cake and ratafia biscuits, separated with spoons of apricot jam, (the original recipe also says cooks could use “lumps of guava jelly” – thanks, empire!) and then turned to the custard.

No idea why the idea of making a custard from scratch scared me because it was quite simple, (apart from the twenty hands needed bit at the end), but I had visions of scrambled egg, so was put off. I heated 450ml of whole milk with the rind of 1 lemon very slowly until it was almost but not quite boiling. In the meantime, I whisked 4 eggs together with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. When the milk was hot enough, I strained it over the eggs, whisking continuously. It sounds easier than it was, so don’t look like that. The recipe also calls for a wine glass of brandy to be added to this at this point, which I forgot to do, but which would have been a good addition.

Once it was all mixed it had to be very carefully poured over the bowl of cake and fruit. The quantities were perfect and even once my fake-stale cake had absorbed it there was still liquid on top. Then it was wrapped in buttered greaseproof paper and foil and steamed in a pan for 1 hour.

“Why have you made a fruity brain?” my husband cowered as I held it triumphantly above my head

Ok. Let’s just cut to the chase: it looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a neurosurgeon’s lecture room as an example of rare and unusual brain diseases. But! It didn’t taste like that. (I think. Who knows – maybe brain is delicious?!)

Because of the mish mash of ingredients in this, every bite was different. One moment I was mostly getting almond and then the next cherry. The whole thing was very soft and melt in the mouth, even the dry cake and drier ratafia biscuits just dissolved. Because of the tiny amount of sugar in it, the custard wasn’t particularly sweet but just sort of mild and creamy – more of an eggy background to the nuttiness of the cakes and syrupiness of the fruit. The recipe advised to serve with custard that had been topped up with yet another glass of brandy, but I found it rich enough on its own.

E x

*Not really. But I can dream.

Boiled Chicken After The French Fashion: 1594

We had a dinner party last week.

I mean, sure, instead of a perfectly clean and tidy house my husband was still madly hoovering up the lounge when people arrived. And yes, it’s true that we saved on toastmaster fees by getting our toddler to do it instead by running round in only a nappy, gleefully screaming at guests and trying to push them over. As for ballgowns and bowties? Unfortunately as all mine were at the dry cleaners or something I had to make do with a 2 day old top of dubious odour and jeans that were so snug I spent half the evening with the button undone – before eating. But damnit, I’m still calling it a dinner party.

Luckily our friends aren’t nobs, and fully expected this to be the case. They mucked in with the cleaning and manfully refrained from shoving the toddler back and not one of them turned up wearing a ballgown. It was all very harmonious and then I said, “tonight’s meal is going on the blog.”

Lots of silence. I think one of them went, “oh?” in a sort of quiet fear.

“No, no, it’s all okay!” I panicked, “I picked one that wasn’t too out there, in terms of ingredients, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t taste nice.”

“So what is it?”

“Boiled chicken -“

“Oh for fu-“

After the French Fashion”, I interrupted triumphantly. “It has to be good if it’s French, right?”

“It’s okay, we can get a takeaway later,” someone muttered to their partner.

Boiled Chicken after the French Fashion was a Tudor dish from Thomas Dawson’s The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin which I’d found in Terry Breverton’s book The Tudor Cookbook. I really wasn’t kidding when I said I’d tried to pick something that would appeal to modern day tastes but was still dinner party worthy and despite it’s anaemic sounding name, it fit the criteria perfectly. In fact it was delicious.

Okay, was it truly representative of a Tudor feast? No. But I had limited time and resources to work with so although I’d had every intention of making the 1516 dish Live Blackbird, Rabbit, Frog, Dog or Dwarf Pie, where live animals, and I guess people (!), were sealed into a pre-baked pie crust before jumping out to the delight of the king and his courtiers, I found getting hold of enough dogs to fill it adequately was difficult. Also, the meal I had prepared was just one dish, but by royal Tudor standards that was basically peasant fare. For example, over the course of just 3 days Lacey Baldwin Smith tells us that Elizabeth I’s court ate: 67 sheep, 34 pigs, 4 stags, 16 bucks, 1,200 chickens, 363 capons, 33 geese, 6 turkeys, over 1000 pigeons, almost 3000 eggs, 430 lbs of butter and a cartload of oysters. In earlier years, Henry VIII, (well known for his restraint when it came to meals) was said to have frequently spent £1520 a year on food for the royal household. In today’s money that’s approximately £860,000. In comparison, as my husband pointed out, I was offering guests unseasoned chicken with a 60p bag of curly kale and a couple of boxes of Matchmakers for dessert. Do you think Henry VIII would have found that a behead-able offence?

Still, I was determined that this would be a success. Dawson’s recipe asks cooks to quarter an unknown quantity of whole chickens and add them to a pan of white wine at a rate of 1 pint of wine per 2 chickens. Maths wasn’t my strongest subject at school and my determination wavered as I had flashbacks of trying to work out the fairest payment plan if Paul, Danny and Sue bought a pack of sweets for £3.47 but split them according to a 20:33:47 ratio. (In my mind it always ended with Sue absolutely losing it, grabbing the bag and sprinting off, culminating in a ratio more representative of playground life at 0:0:100.)

Because there were 6 of us, we were hungry and I was hoping to have leftovers, I settled on 12 chicken breasts cut into thirds. Post-Roman and early medieval chickens in England were smaller than their modern day counterparts and though I expect they had grown by the time of the Tudors, I can’t find any evidence to show whether they were of a comparable size to chickens today. I estimated that 12 breasts was roughly equivalent to 3 or 4 Tudor chickens so added 2 pints of white wine to the pot. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my maths teacher cheered me on.

I added thyme, parsley and half a thumb’s worth of ginger, chopped up into as tiny pieces as I could manage, and then sliced 5 dates. This was one of the more unusual ingredients, but actually the technique of mixing exotic sweet fruits with savoury dishes was typical for the Tudor time period, especially for the rich where it was yet another opportunity to show off their wealth. It’s something that we perhaps don’t do as much now, or if we do it’s only done with specific meals, (pork and apple sauce, for example), but during the reigns of Henry VIII and his murderous offspring, it was common for cooks to use a mixture of ingredients that we might now consider almost experimental.

The dates weren’t easy to chop and ended up being more of a paste, but I added them anyway. I had one left over, which I gave to my toddler who excitedly shouted, “chocolate! chocolate!” as she ate it, so there’s a mum win for me.

The final ingredient was 6 hardboiled egg yolks. I had no idea what they were for, or whether they should be sliced, crumbled or added whole. I assumed they were to act as a thickener for the wine to turn it into more of a sauce, but couldn’t see how 6 yolks would do that on their own. Still, I dutifully chopped and added them to the pot.

Definitely the most vibrant and healthy looking meal so far. Luckily, this would all change

I left it to simmer for about 1 and a half hours on a low heat. After a while I checked to see if the yolks had done their thing and was unsurprised to find they hadn’t. In fact, before they’d been added, this meal looked quite appetising. After their addition, however, it had turned a sort of creamy grey colour, still the thickness of water only now with lumps of rubbery yolk bobbing on the surface like deformed bath ducks. In order to salvage the appearance of the meal, and not to be blacklisted from any dinner parties ever again, I mixed in a tablespoon of flour to make up for the lacklustre thickening efforts of the egg yolks. Other than this addition, everything else was as the recipe intended.

Once the liquid resembled a silky looking white sauce and less like Satan’s bathwater, I added some salt and cinnamon and “served it forth” along with some distinctly un-Tudor mustard mash and greens. It’s a myth that the Tudors added spices to rotting meat to disguise the disgusting taste; spices like cinnamon, which became popular during the reign of Elizabeth I, were so expensive that their presence in recipes indicates that the chef could definitely have afforded good quality meat. It would have been more than it was worth to a royal chef to use up rotting meat for the king or queen, and so as with the dates the cinnamon would have been an exciting way to show off relatively unusual ingredients and wealth.

It. Was. Amazing.

Before anyone was allowed to tuck in, I had to get the perfect picture. Cue 10 minutes of my guests hiding unsightly wine glasses, adjusting the positions of the knives and forks and just generally getting out of the way. All for me to end up picking a super close up shot

The chicken was tender and had just started flaking and the alcohol had cooked away to leave a rich fruity flavour behind. It was sweeter than any other savoury sauce I’d had before thanks to the dates, but the salt and herbs stopped it from tipping too far. Despite what I thought was quite a lot of ginger at the time, it wasn’t spicy at all. I thought I could detect the hint of cinnamon in a warming way, but whether or not that was because I knew it was in there was unclear; some people could taste it and others, (inferior guests, in my opinion), couldn’t. The addition of flour helped the overall attractiveness of it, but I can see that even without it it would still taste good, just maybe more broth like.

My fear had been that people would try it and go quiet, suddenly remembering that they’d actually eaten recently already, or that they were trying to lose weight for January. But in reality, every plate was cleared! In fact, there was only a small portion left by the end, enough for lunch later in the week.

This dinner party might not have been quite as sophisticated as Mary Berry’s, or as showy as the Tudor’s but in the end it was very us – and not a frog, dog or dwarf was harmed in the making of it.

E x

Caudle Ferry: 1390

Right. I have a confession to make and it’s not one of the cool ones like ‘I was once on a game show in the ’90’s’ or ‘my whole life as you know it is a lie because I’m actually hiding from the mafia and my name is really Julianna’. This confession is probably quite boring to lots of people and also not really much of a confession to anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with the middle ages.

Anything at all will do it for me – crumbly ruins on the side of a motorway? Excuse me while I leave my child unattended on the hard shoulder to go exploring for an hour. Recently discovered plague pit? Sounds like a fantastic family holiday destination. Year 7 National Curriculum guidelines on the Norman Conquest? Make it a Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 mandatory subject. (Actually, I could write an entire post about how medieval history has been infantalised in our education system and is often seen as an ‘easier’ time period to study, helping transition 11 year olds from primary school to secondary. As far as I’m concerned, if my year 7’s aren’t leaving class weeping quietly but with a full comprehension of the many and varied differences between villeins and freemen then I haven’t done my job properly.)

This recipe was therefore something I was really looking forward to: medieval, sweet and seemed pretty straightforward. The collection of recipes this dish is from, the 14th century Forme of Cury, have also been extensively researched, so plenty of reading for me to get stuck into.

Forme of Cury is the oldest cookery book written in English and the original seems to have been written by the master cooks of Richard II, who reigned from 1377 – 1399. During the course of the middle ages, the recipes were updated, edited and copied meaning that there are actually numerous versions. The book contains about 196 recipes designed to instruct the cooks of great households on how to emulate the dishes enjoyed by King Richard for their own masters. Interestingly, despite being written by the king’s cooks, not every recipe in the text is a frenzied opportunity to show off wealth or skill; some of them are for everyday foods such as “common pottages”. It appears that what the authors were really concerned with was making an instructional manual to ensure that cooks knew how to prepare their meals, whatever they were, properly and with care.

1420’s version of the Forme of Cury. From the British Library, Add MS 5016
I’m no expert, but I reckon those spatters could be BBQ sauce

The version I’m using is an 18th century copy of an original 14th century text. It would appear that during the 1700’s, the English naturalist, (not naturist, as I realised I’d written on my 3rd read though), Gustavus Brander, asked his friend Samuel Pegge, an antiquarian and all round nerd, to transcribe an original copy of The Forme of Cury he just had casually lying around into a book. Proving that people have been half-arsing their homework for centuries, Pegge returned it and the book to Brander with a note apologising that he had not been able to complete a full transcript of the text because of his lack of ability, but that he hoped what he had completed would be good enough. History is silent on whether Brander accepted this excuse or if he made Pegge redo it in lunchtime detention.

Caudle Ferry was an odd one to recreate because I wasn’t sure what the modern day equivalent was and, frankly, the medieval version didn’t seem to know what it was meant to be either. Some people suggested that it should be like a thick drink and others stated it should be more like a dough which could be sliced. From what I can gather it started out as a warming drink and over time developed to become more of a food through the addition of breadcrumbs to the recipe. The only thing that was clear to me was that it was definitely meant to be sweet.

With literally no idea what this should look like and, in true medieval style, with no sodding measurements or times stated in the recipe, I called my sister for help. I lured her in with the promise of cake and that I would mention her in this post, despite the fact I’m fairly sure only she and my husband read this blog.

First of all I mixed 2 dessert spoons of white flour with 185ml of white wine. I chose Sauvignon Blanc because of its intoxicating and heady notes of frugality which were created by being 50% off in Sainsbury’s. To this, I added “a grete quantite” of clarified honey and a few strands of saffron. Thanks to my last foray into medieval cooking, I knew that I didn’t need to waste time clarifying my honey, so I took the step of declaring that “a grete quantite” converted into 3 dessert spoons and stirred it all round. The honey sank to the bottom of the mix and, as my sister said, certainly sat there looking like it was a great quantity, so I left it at that.

I then cooked it on a low heat for 6 or 7 minutes, stirring it continuously because I didn’t want the flour to go lumpy. When it had thickened, I added two egg yolks and a pinch of salt and continued to stir over a low heat. Still with no idea of what this was meant to be like, I could only describe the texture and appearance as being like the love child of custard and wallpaper paste. My sister, whose kitchen specialty is eclairs, told me I’d basically made choux pastry, which is a much more appetising way of describing it.

After I was confident the yolks had been fully incorporated and cooked, I scraped it all into a bowl and sprinkled on 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Ever the gracious hostess, I dared let my sister try it first.

“I have created a new dish for your majesty, inspired by the work of the palace decorators currently re-papering your room”

Thanks to my diligent stirring the texture was very smooth. It was also very, very thick and sticky and not as creamy as it looks. The wine was a prominent flavour, but was nicely balanced by the great quantity of honey, which I’d absolutely nailed. Overall it was like a mildly sweet, slightly alcoholic goo. Both of us agreed that a few spoons was plenty and we weren’t able to finish it all. During the middle ages this dish may have been served along with many others, with guests taking a spoonful or so of each, so to eat an entire bowl may have been overly ambitious. Regardless, the first spoon we tried became one of those situations where you’re waiting for the other one to give their opinion first so you know whether you can admit to actually quite liking something, or whether you’re just a total weirdo.

It seemed a shame to waste what was left so, inspired by my sister’s comment about choux pastry, I scraped the remaining mixture out into little profiteroles onto a baking sheet and baked at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Unfortunately it would appear that my sister has sold her soul to the devil of baking because after following her instructions and fantasising about the boozy filling I could make to go with them, my profiteroles looked like this:

No, I didn’t try to eat it

Even though I still don’t really know what Caudle Ferry is, I guess sometimes the old adage ‘if it ain’t totally inedible, don’t piss around trying to be clever’ really is true.

E x

Lord Woolton’s Pie: 1940’s

It’s been a long first week back to work for both of us. Those 6:00am alarms had not been missed and their return was not welcome. Having crawled through Monday to Friday, I decided that what we could all do with was a delicious treat at the weekend to pick us up. Surely a dish named after a lauded member of the aristocracy would fit my needs?

Having wrestled my toddler into bed for a much needed nap, (though whether it was her or I who needed her to have one isn’t clear), and waited until her protestations – all of them eloquently well argued and not at all like wordless sirens – died down, I turned to the pages of history to find inspiration.

Lord Woolton was the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943 and his job was essentially to prevent the nation starving during World War Two when food was scarce and could not be easily imported. At this point, I’ll admit, alarm bells were ringing because I had a sneaking suspicion that my decadent pie was possibly not going to be as indulgent as I had hoped, but I’d picked it now so tough luck to me. “Lunch might be a little bit simpler than I’d planned”, I told my husband. Poor, innocent man; I felt I had to break it to him gently.

In January of 1940, the British government introduced rationing in an effort to ensure food was shared out fairly between all. In order to maintain group poverty at a level where everyone was suffering equally, Lord Woolton’s department distributed ration books, which were small booklets filled with coupons and given to every man, woman and child in Britain. Housewives had to register their family’s ration books at certain retailers in an effort to stop duplication. Certain foods could only be purchased with the coupons and once they were gone, they were gone. Woolton himself described it in 1940 when he told the Evening Express: “I suppose I am going to run the biggest shop in the world.”

From January of 1940, butter, bacon and sugar were rationed. In March, more meat was added to this list. For a nation that was the home of the Sunday Roast and the Full English, (yes, I’ve capitalised these national treasures), suddenly finding that meat was not as available as it had been was staggering. Combine this with the fact that in July of 1940 tea became a victim of rationing too and it’s a wonder Britain had the morale to go through with the war at all.

Subsequent years saw the rationing of foods such as jam, cheese, eggs, tinned tomatoes, sweets and chocolate. Other items were also rationed on a points system. Dried fruit, cereal and baked goods like biscuits and cakes were given out according to consumer demand and how available these items were. People would queue for hours in long lines at the shop only to be told that certain items had run out when they eventually got to the front. Milk was also given out on a priority basis to those deemed most in need of it: children and expectant mothers.

Some foods weren’t rationed. I’m sure that children in the 40’s who could only half remember what chocolate tasted like would have been comforted by the knowledge that seasonal local fruit and vegetables were usually readily available, although any fruit that was imported would have faced dwindling supplies.

It was with this national backdrop that the government came up with the ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme – an initiative designed to get people converting their gardens into allotments in order to become as self sufficient as possible. Many public spaces, such as parks, were also converted. Propaganda posters began to be created encouraging, and at times cajoling, those who were slow to start the process.

Truly patriotic mothers sent their unaccompanied babies into the wild with metal tools twice the size of them

Reproduced from the IWM

Historically, the people of Britain have viewed vegetables with the same level of mistrust and wariness that one might have if a rabid cheetah somehow broke through the back fence and was waiting in the borders of their garden. Oh, we grew them and even cultivated them, but in the past vegetables tended to be cooked until all the green had seeped away and those nasty dangerous vitamins had been boiled out.

To help people adapt to their slimmed down pantries and to encourage them to actually eat all the veg that was now being grown, Lord Woolton and his department devised a collection of recipes to inspire housewives to make the most of the ingredients available to them. Lord Woolton’s Pie, as it became known, is perhaps the most famous of these Ministry dishes.

By now, any lingering hope of a luxurious Saturday lunch was gone and had been replaced with despair when I read that journalist William Sitwell, who had recreated this recipe as part of his article into Lord Woolton and rationing, had described the meal as “grim and dull”. I went back to my husband and told him that as well as being simpler than he was expecting, lunch was also going to be a historical twist on the types of spiritual and energising meat free meals served in 5 star yoga retreats and was therefore, if he thought about it, Very Exciting Indeed.

For the pie filling I chopped and diced just over 1lb of potato, swede and carrot and mixed it with 4 diced spring onions. I tipped the vegetables into a saucepan of water, into which I added 1 teaspoon of Marmite. Food historians might argue this addition was part of the recipe because it was a quick way of ensuring additional nutrients were added to people’s sparse diet during the war; as a member of Team Hate It, I think it was just another way of making the public miserable.

The steam kept fogging up the camera, which was probably not a bad thing for this meal

While all this was simmering I began on the pie crust. Now, I am a big believer that if you’re going to advertise something as a ‘pie’, it needs to have a crust on the top, sides and bottom. Anything else is just a stew with a bit of pastry on top: disappointing, deceitful and downright insulting. Lord Woolton must have thought this would be perfect for this meal, then.

The crust consisted of 8oz wheatmeal flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt and 1/4 pint of cold milk (or water, depending on your sadist percentage). I mixed all the ingredients together into a sticky dough and rolled it out into a disk just big enough to disguise a stew as a pie before tipping the vegetables into a dish and covering with the pastry. It cooked at 180 degrees until the crust had turned golden brown.

It’s hard to put into words the range of emotions that flickered on my husband’s face when I presented lunch to him. To his everlasting credit he attempted a compliment when he described it as “simple waste not want not food”, which is exactly what the point of the meal was. It’s easy for me to mock now, but at the time this dish became popular because of how surprisingly filling it was as well as how quick, easy and cheap. If you were a woman trying to feed your children properly under strict rationing whilst also working, being self sufficient and/or running a household alone whilst your husband was at war, I don’t think you could get much better than this.

Not as “grim and dull” as I was expecting it to look

Additionally, this recipe also allowed me to fulfil a personal goal of eating more vegetables, even if they had been tainted with the poison that is Marmite. In terms of taste, it was unsurprisingly very bland. Because of the lack of any fat it had a thin and quite watery quality to it. The pastry was also underwhelming in flavour, but would have been filling if we’d not given up and reached for the biscuits after a few mouthfuls. Luckily for those living through rationing, this era was also responsible for some of the best puddings ever known to man: custard trifle to use up stale cake, lemon meringue pie to use eggs that were about to turn, and jam sponge made with grated carrot as part substitute for sugar were all welcome additions to the table.

My daughter woke up just as we sat down to eat so I thought I’d see what her verdict was. This is a child who will eat anything that’s not nailed down. I have seen her devour crayons with relish. This Christmas, in her eagerness to get to the chocolate inside, she consumed part of the foil on the outside of a chocolate coin. This time, however, she took one bite of the pie, chewed it round for a bit, spat it out and handed it back to me. Despite its good intentions and the history of its necessity, I couldn’t think of a better summation for this dish.

E x

Jumbles: 1596

In 2016 The Great British Bake Off set its contestants a Tudor technical challenge: to bake a batch of Jumbles. These sweet little doughy knots were popular in the 16th century because they used basic kitchen ingredients and were lauded as being so easy that even the most cackhanded of cooks would struggle to mess them up. This was, obviously, too tempting a challenge to ignore.

Despite having a ready made recipe in the Bake Off’s version, I wanted to do a bit of hunting to see how accurate it was. Nothing against Bake Off, but history wasn’t made by bowing to the interpretations of national institutions with armies of qualified food historians and access to every library in Britain behind them. Good historians question everything put in front of them, hoping for the moment when they can triumphantly push their glasses further up their nose, wag their finger and whine, “er, actually, I think you’ll find…”

Anyway, we can all rest easy because thanks to my dedication I can confirm that Bake Off‘s version is fairly true to the original. This means that my breakthrough history discovery is yet to come, which I’m not annoyed about at all.

The 16th century was the first time that cookery books began to be published and collected in any sort of significant numbers. They were overwhelmingly owned by the aristocracy, however, because much of the population still couldn’t read and because many of the recipes used ingredients that would have been too expensive for ordinary people. Lots of the recipes in them were still about impressing guests with exotic flavours and showing off wealth, rather than filling hungry stomachs. It was not until 100 years later in 1664 that the poor could hope to compete with the rich by showing off meals made with a relatively new addition to England – the potato – with a treatise of their own by John Forster, concisely entitled *deep breath*: England’s Happiness Increased, or a sure and Easy Remedy Against all Succeeding Dear Years by a Plantation of the Roots called Potatoes: Whereby (with the Addition of Wheat flower) Excellent Good and Wholesome Bread may be Made Every 8 or 9 Months Together, for Half the Charge as Formerly; Also by the Planting of These Roots Ten Thousand Men in England and Wales Who Know Not How to Live, or What to Do to Get a Maintenance for their Families, may on one Acre of Ground make 30 Pounds per Annum. Invented and Published for the Good of the Poorer Sort. We can only imagine he was paid by the word.

The recipe I used for my Jumbles was taken from a popular 1596 work by Thomas Dawson called The Good Huswifes Jewell and would have been one of the books that became popular during this culinary boom. Dawson’s recipe used 20 eggs to make 100 Jumbles, and though I suspect my toddler would have happily worked her way through 100 of them, I wasn’t prepared to become a mother to a child that had become 50% dough.

First I mixed 400g of plain flour with 150g of caster sugar in a bowl and added 2 beaten eggs and 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and kneaded it together. The dough was very dry, so I added 50ml of water, which helped bind it. I tipped it out onto a non stick sheet, which after this attempt I’m renaming ‘a total liar sheet’, and divided it into 12 sticky blobs.

The real story here is that I’ve discovered the artistic blur setting (aka food mode) on my camera

While I waited for a saucepan of water to boil, I rolled the dough balls into sausages and tied them into knots, or jumbles. My first jumble attempt was actually pretty impressive! Maybe as promised, the recipe was genuinely inclusive of kitchen klutzes after all? A quick and confident twist of the next sausage told me: no.

I created 2 bespoke designs – the elegant ‘twist and loop’ and the ‘squashed turd’. In fairness, ‘squashed turd’ hadn’t started out that way, but after 5 attempts at threading the dough through a loop of itself I had to admit that that’s what it had become.

After the dough had been shaped I dropped each one, one at a time, into the saucepan of boiling water for about 5-10 seconds until they bobbed to the top. I then fished the molten, distorted shapes out with a spatula, because my slotted spoon was on holiday somewhere, and put them on a greased tray in the oven at 180 degrees, brushing each one with rose-water and a sprinkling of sugar before they went in.

Part way through dipping these in water, I texted my husband to tell him I had just boiled 2 turds. He didn’t reply

After 20-25 minutes they were golden and smelled lovely with a fragrant spicy aroma. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, they had lost some of their shape in between being boiled and then baked. Some of the elegant twist and loops had lost their loops and some of the squashed turds just looked like little round buns, but they were still quite appetising! I tasted one of the blobbier looking ones and found that it was chewy like a bagel with just a hint of sweetness. The caraway seeds mixed with the rose water glaze to be quite fragrant without being overpowering. There was a definite non-modern feeling to these, despite them using modern ingredients. The Jumbles were quite heavy (one was filling enough), and though I had mine plain, I think they’d work well with some honey or salted butter hot from the oven. Definitely worth a go!

It’s hard to do a cover up when you only have one pretty jumble to pile over a bowlful of ugly jumbles, but I tried

E x

Patina Lucretiana (Roman pork with onions): 900 AD

I seriously considered pretending I understood Latin for this one. Actually, I started learning it back in summer but then stopped when I went back to work having only just grasped the basic fundamentals of the nominative, accusative, dative and despair.

Still, I had enough to know that Patina Lucretiana does not mean ‘Roman pork with onions’. It’s actually named after a Roman contemporary of Cicero, Lucretius Epicuraeus, and loosely translates to The Lucretian dish. (I think. Despite having an amazing teacher I was better at the despair parts of my Latin lessons.)

This recipe is taken from a Roman cookbook called Apicius which is a collection of recipes organised really helpfully (genuinely!) into 10 books for each type of food: game, veg, poultry, fish etc. The first book is called ‘The Careful Experienced Housekeeper’ and is basically a 21 chapter long text on how to make sure your household doesn’t run out of the basics, and how to stop food from rotting. Before you get to that, though, the author thought that what a truly careful and experienced housekeeper needed to know was how to get properly pissed, and so the first 5 chapters are dedicated solely to making and keeping alcohol – including salvaging wine that probably should be thrown out, as in chapter 5 ‘To clarify a muddy wine.’

Patina Lucretiana is essentially braised pork belly cooked in onions and something called ‘liquamen’. This obscure term was totally lost on me and after a bit of research I found that no one truly knows what it is, but it’s likely to have been some kind of fish sauce, a bit like garum. Coupled with the fact that the recipe also mentions a broth I assumed it was meant to be more of a stock.

The recipe is also very specific in calling for salted pork belly. This is probably because, and I don’t think is common knowledge, the Romans didn’t have fridges. In order to preserve meat they might salt it, smoke it or air dry it, to draw the moisture out and make it last longer. Though I probably could have used the pork chops we had in already, (thanks to the freezer, which, in an annoying twist for the author, was invented just after the fall of the Roman Empire) I wanted to see what it would taste like with the proper cuts prepared as closely as possible to the original recipe.

So, armed with just over 500g of pork belly and a bag of sea salt, I carefully yet cluelessly began preserving the meat. It took ages because I employed the timeless chuck-it-and-hope-it-sticks method when applying the salt, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped because the pork skin was quite dry and covered a lot of the area. In the end I had to salt some clingfilm, lay the pork on it and try and wrap it up as I poured more salt down the sides. Stuck it in the fridge and waited 2 days, an arbitrary number plucked out of the air and which I’ve since learnt would have given just enough time for the salt to do sod all as apparently it takes about 5 days to cure 1 inch of meat. So much for authenticity.

Delicious pointlessly salted meat

After 2 days I began on the rest of the meal. The recipe stated that onions needed to be added to a pan with some of the liquamen, but first they should be cleaned and the “young green tops of them rejected”. This was tough on me and the onions and I for one was in tears by the end. Afterwards I realised that the reference to young green tops probably meant I should have used spring onions, so if I did this again I’d use them, not ordinary onions.

I let 2 chopped onions cook for 10 minutes in olive oil while I made 150ml of liquamen by dissolving a fish stock pot in water with a couple more teaspoons of oil. I added this to the cooked onions and then added the very salty pork belly (I did scrape some off).

This bit I was quite nervous for, actually. I don’t really cook pork and the recipe didn’t make it clear whether to cook it on the hob or in an oven, or for how long. Since most Roman cooking was done over a hearth, with pans supported by tripods or grid irons, and the recipe had made no mention of roasting or ovens, I decided to cook it on the hob but in a dish with a lid so that it cooked in the steam of the stock and onions.

I was never more aware of how unpleasant food poisoning might be than at this point

To help me work out how long to cook this for I looked up some modern day recipes for braised pork belly. I found that it works best when left for a long time (lots of recipes suggested 2.5 hours for 1kg of pork.) With that in mind, I left my 500g (checking that the liquamen levels didn’t get too low) for about 1.5 hours. After about an hour I added a spoon of honey, about 150ml of water and a few dashes of vinegar and then left it to cook more before serving.

Potato should always form 50% of the plate

Honestly? It wasn’t as good as I’d hoped; perhaps the author wasn’t such a fan of Lucretius after all! Now, I hold my hands up and say that could well be down to my inferior cooking abilities, but I found it a bit tough and difficult to cut through. Unsurprisingly, salt was the predominant taste and only stopped short of becoming overpowering because the honey and water sweetened it slightly. Still, by everyday modern standards it was way too much.

The ancient Romans didn’t have mashed potatoes but we did, which was a bit of a saving grace for this meal, along with the onions which were delicious. The whole thing combined reminded me of an overdone gammon although the potatoes with a bit of the sauce on top worked well.

Despite the fact that I should have been in my element as this meal contained no green whatsoever, I wouldn’t rush to make it again. This is one that can stay in the past.

E x

Medieval gingerbread? (hold the ginger…): 1430’s

I’m back to work on Monday having enjoyed an entire 2 weeks of Christmas holiday (perks of being a teacher!) and, well, I’m not sure I’ll be going back. No real reason, it’s just I’ve become so used to only wearing pyjamas and eating chocolate for every meal that I don’t think I can remember how to be a functioning adult, let alone a functioning adult in charge of the future generations of this country. I’ve also had a cold all Christmas and I am pretty sure that if part of your holiday is spent lying on the sofa being poorly instead of lying on the sofa drunk on mulled wine, then you’re allowed to redo the whole thing. I mean, I need to double check it, but I’m fairly certain the law is on my side with this one.

Anyway, in an effort to prolong the festivities I decided to make some gingerbread. This is actually something I’ve wanted to do for ages and every year I tell myself that I’ll make one of those gingerbread houses and decorate it with smarties and jelly tots just like a Hansel and Gretel fever dream. And yet every year I never get round to it. Eggnog always seems to happen instead. So I thought my first dip into the pantry of history could be one that fulfils my wish for a biscuit house and gets post number 1 done in one go!

Except… it turns out that 15th century medieval cooks didn’t quite go in for candy cane picket fences and soft snap biscuit walls. In fact, their whole concept of gingerbread was totally different to ours. For a start: no ginger was needed. In gingerbread. Gingerbread. I actually did some research into this recipe and from what I can gather it was either left out because the other ingredients were believed to fulfil the job of the ginger (more on that in a second) or because the author just forgot to add it in. He had one job! Either way, we aren’t sure why a recipe daring to call itself ‘Gyngerbrede’ would so boldly flout the trade descriptions act, but there we go.

The actual ingredients are honey, powdered pepper, saffron, cinnamon and bread. Always helpful, the author of this recipe didn’t really specify any quantities other than a ‘quart of hony’ which is roughly equivalent to a modern day litre. This is absolutely outrageous decadence for a recipe written at a time of famine, war and plague, so this recipe must have been aspirational and only for the rich (as if the presence of spices hadn’t given that away). I substituted a quart for 250ml instead.

First, I had to take my honey and boil until a scum formed, then skim this scum off. This was pretty easy and smelled quite good. There was minimal scum to get rid of because I guess modern day honey manufacturing methods have taken out a lot of the impurities for us, but I sort of swirled a spoon around the pan for the spirit of the thing.

Then I added powdered pepper, (which I hand ground in a pestle and mortar that I found in the cupboard that neither myself or my husband bought but which I’ve learnt is one of those things that all kitchens must generate themselves, like cinnamon sticks and batteries) and stirred it. This was a bit trickier because there were no quantities given in the recipe so I just put in a teaspoon of ground peppercorns and hoped for the best. Then I added a few strands of saffron (did you know that saffron was so highly prized that in 15th century Germany, merchants who cheated their customers by adulterating their stock could be arrested and executed?) and gave it all a quick stir.

So far, so good. I think Dulux would call this colour ‘Moderate Dehydration’

Next I risked my marriage by grating a quarter of a loaf of white bread all over the kitchen counter less than 15 minutes after my husband had lovingly tidied and wiped down all the surfaces and swept the floor. I suppose if I was doing this properly I would have made my own medieval loaf, but as it was I couldn’t be arsed and my toddler was now very curious about the pan of bubbling honey, so I just used a plain wheat loaf instead. Ordinary medieval peasants would only have access to rougher grains for their breads, for example rye, as wheat was a ‘cash crop’ and usually only for the wealthy. However, given that I’d already established this recipe was written by a lunatic who presumably had enough cash to sink a litre of honey and saffron in one go, I assumed using a simple shop bought cottage white loaf would be close enough to the fine wheat bread of the wealthy medieval classes. I grated the bread into as fine breadcrumbs as I could using a cheese grater because the curious and slightly insomniatic (is this a word?) toddler was now in bed in the room above the kitchen so using the food processor to make breadcrumbs was out of the question, and tipped the mass into the honey mix.

It all began to smell very medieval. Sort of ferment-y and sweet and musty. I stirred it all together until it was basically a thick paste and tipped it into a dish to squidge down. It had a grainy texture, like homemade fudge. At this point the recipe suggested adding sandalwood for a red colour, and I can see why; once I had patted it into all the edges and smoothed it down it resembled less cookie-cutter house of dreams and more regurgitated cat food. The author must have thought the same because he practically begged me to add evergreen leaves and cloves for disguise decoration.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat this?

Realised at this point that I’d forgotten to add the cinnamon, which by medieval standards would have been a big no-no. Remember I mentioned earlier that one possible reason for the lack of ginger in this recipe was because it was believed the other ingredients would have done ginger’s job for it? Medieval people believed in the theory of the 4 humours – that the human body was made up of 4 essential liquids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Illness was caused when the humours became corrupted or misaligned and because each humour shared attributes with the 4 elements (hot, cold, wet, dry) a sick person could have their humours realigned by taking a medicine with elements in it which would generate more of the humour they were lacking, or cause them to purge some of the humour they had too much of. Ginger, with its spicy kick, was associated with the element of heat and therefore would have been seen as a medicinal ingredient for those whose illness was caused by a lack of bile and who needed to create more by warming up their insides. Other ingredients with similarly spicy qualities, such as cinnamon, did the same, which is why a medieval person using this recipe as more of a medieval version of a chakra cleanse rather than a sweet treat might have been distraught by my forgetfulness. Although the teaspoon of pepper, another spicy addition to the recipe, may have made up for it. Either way, whoever the author was they must have really been lacking in yellow bile…

After a couple of hours in the fridge I cut it into slices and sprinkled on some of the forgotten cinnamon. It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would! It’s not as painfully sweet as I expected but is very sticky and kind of nougat like. I had chilled mine in the fridge before cutting it because I’m a sucker for an anachronism, and I think that made it more palatable. A teaspoon of pepper is maybe too much as it definitely had a kick to it, although that may also have been overeager cinnamonning at the end. All in all I definitely wouldn’t call this gingerbread, but I can see why someone who had the misfortune to live before chocolate and gummy bears were invented might think it was a decent treat.

E x